You’ve saved money to go to that great photo spot, marked your calendar, put in for vacation time, and are already thinking about the photos you want to make. The trouble is, you’ve never been there. Your time will be limited. You want to be able to use it to make pictures, not scouting to find where to go and when to be there for best locations and light. How can you “know before you go?” Welcome to the “Twenty-Twenties,” a time when cyber-scouting photo locations can be the next best thing to being there.
I thought I’d coined a new term, but a quick Google search proved otherwise.
Many people who are planning trips now “cyber-scout” the internet to pre-plan their journey. Hunters, backpackers, vacation travelers – all kinds of folks have discovered the usefulness of these online tools.
It only makes sense that we, as photographers, tap into the ability to see photos and survey sites we’re planning to visit before we even get there.
My photo buddy Dan and I made a dream-trip a few years ago, photographing New England in the autumn. Living 2,600 miles away in Idaho, it wasn’t like we had much familiarity with the area. As we’d only be there less than a week, scouting once we had “boots on the ground” wasn’t going to be possible.
Wasting time getting lost wasn’t an option either.
Dan prefers not to see too many photos of a spot before he goes, concerned it will overly influence what he shoots. He’d rather see it with “new eyes” and create unique compositions.
I can appreciate that viewpoint, but I’m different.
Planning a trip, pre-visualizing the locations, seeing the spots, and anticipating being there is like getting two trips in one. It’s a virtual-reality vacation, plus a real-reality trip where, once I’m there, I already have some familiarity. Different strokes, I guess.
It worked though – I became the planner/navigator, and he just made great shots on the trip. (He’s a much better photographer than I, but that’s another story for another day.)
Where to be and when to be there
When asked the secret to his great photos, a famous New York spot-news photographer is thought to have originated this photography quote –
“f/8 and be there.” – Arthur “Weegee” Fellig
The idea is that being at the right location at the right time is more important to make a great photo than all the technical equipment and technique combined. So, when you are planning to photograph somewhere you’ve never been, how do you know what are good locations, and what are good times to be there?
That is precisely the reason for cyber-scouting photo locations.
A GPS primer
Locations can be referred to in many ways. The simplest is the place name. Photographer friends we told about going to New England said a not-to-miss spot was Acadia National Park. Good general information, but how about specific spots?
Okay, “be sure to get to the Bass Harbor Lighthouse,” they said. Traditionally, we might have found the spot with a paper map, written directions, and perhaps some coaching from the locals.
These days we have GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) navigation equipment, in our cars, on our phones, and in many other devices. Any spot on Earth with an unobstructed line-of-sight view to four or more GPS satellites can be precisely defined.
The Bass Harbor Lighthouse is at 44°13’19.27N, 68°20’14.79W.
The first set of numbers is how far north of the equator the place is, the second how far west of the Prime Meridian – unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere.
Places south of the equator and east of the Prime Meridian have GPS coordinates like this: 33°51’23.68S, 151°12’53.49E. These are coordinates for the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
Copy and paste those coordinates into your web browser, and you’ll bring up a map of those precise spots.
We’ll come back to why you want to know this in a bit. In the meantime, stick a pin in that spot while we explore other ways to develop a list of locations you want to visit on your photo trip.
You remember books, right? Those paper things we read before we had computers, tablets, phones, and other devices?
If the spot for your trip is well-known, the chances are good that someone will have written a book about it. For our trip, we picked up “Photographing Acadia National Park,” by Colleen Minuk-Sperry. It turned out to be a great resource.
We later took a workshop with Dave Long of Blue Hour Photo Ventures. Dave has written numerous e-books on great New England photo locations and has included the GPS coordinates of each spot, making cyber-scouting them online and later getting there a breeze.
Find out if there are good books written about your intended photo location.
Do you think there’s a spot no one has written about on a website?
Say your boss decides to send you on a business trip to Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. (If he does, he might be telling you something). Should you take your camera?
Where is it, and what’s there?
Google “Top Photo Spots in Ittoqqortoormiit” and yup, you’ll find photos. You’ll find companies giving photo tours. You’ll find photos on 500px by others who have been there.
Even though it is one of the most remote places in the world, you can still cyber-scout it and know what you’ll see before you go. (Or I can view the photos a friend of mine in our photo club took when he visited Greenland with noted landscape photographer Art Wolfe. Unbelievable!)
My point is, it’s unlikely you’ll find a place anywhere in the world not discussed and pictured on the web. Plugin the GPS coordinates (70.4849752,-21.9729592) for Ittoqqortoormiit (don’t worry if you can’t pronounce it), and off you go, no sled dogs required.
I couldn’t even begin to name all the online sites where photographers post their photos. Cyber-scouting photo locations on such sites can be a virtual tour of the area you plan to visit.
See a spot you like? Make a note of the place name and then search for it. 500px is a favorite place of mine. For our Acadia National Park trip, I found over 7,000 photos. Heck, even for Ittoqqortoormiit, there were 81 photos the night I checked.
Another good photo location to check is Flickr. (They had over 1,500 photos of Ittoqqortoomiit when I looked.)
Many of the photos posted there have the GPS coordinates recorded, and with a few clicks, you’re off on your virtual tour.
Come fly with me
What if you could send your “virtual drone” off on a mission cyber-scouting photo locations? That’s pretty much what you have with Google Earth.
“Fly” to a location, see it from different angles, zoom in, look for place names, see photos others have taken there, and get the GPS coordinates.
It’s a great way to scout a spot before going.
Let’s fly over the Bass Harbor Lighthouse. Which would be the better angle – shoot toward the east or west? What if I want to get the sunset?
If I’m there on a particular date, where will the sun set, and at what time? How will it all line-up? Google Earth can emulate all of that.
Fly to the spot, activate the sunlight slider, enter the time and date you plan to be there, and move the slider to watch how the light moves across the landscape. Cool huh?
The wildcard is what the weather will be when you’re there.
You can anticipate the weather a couple of days out with weather apps. You can decide if you should go or maybe seek an alternate spot.
Another reason for cyber-scouting photo locations is to have a “Plan-B” should the weather not cooperate.
There are also a bunch of good weather apps useful for photographers. Even with all my best scouting, the evening we went to the Bass Harbor Lighthouse, the sunset was a bust with heavy cloud cover. Some things still can’t be totally planned. Still, I thought I made a decent shot, regardless.
Make your shot different
One problem with going to an iconic photo location is that so many other photographers have probably been there already (you’re likely to find a pack there when you go), and made thousands of shots.
Take advantage of the ability of Google Earth’s fly-over capabilities to look for different compositions. Check the landforms, angles, the way the light falls at certain times of the day, and how you can create different and interesting images.
When you find a spot, “drop a pin.” Note the GPS coordinates, and then you’ll be able to find that unique spot once you’re onsite.
Let’s use an example.
If you go to San Francisco, you’re probably going to want to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge. If you ride a tourist bus and do what a jillion other people have done, they’ll stop at Vista Point on the north side of the bridge. Line up with a thousand other photographers (and even more “happy snappers”), and take the same basic shot everyone gets.
Instead, use Google Earth for cyber-scouting the location.
You might learn if you went to Marshall’s Beach over the southwest side of the bridge, you could get a much less-photographed vantage point. With some creativity, good light, and a dose of photographer’s luck, your shot won’t be like the one the folks on the tourist bus will take thousands of times each day.
Back on the ground with the Peg Man
Another way for cyber-scouting photo locations is to make friends with the Google Maps “Peg Man.” That’s what some call the little character you can move to a spot and get a virtual POV (Point-of-View) look at the area, much as if you were really there.
Let’s head back to Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland.
Open Google Maps and search for the place (if you can spell it). If not, perhaps you saved the GPS coordinates – 70.4844397,-21.9701898?
Click on the map that appears in your browser to open Google Maps. Now look for the Peg Man, he’s that little guy at the bottom right of the screen.
Click on him.
If the streets on your map turn blue, you can then click, hold, drag, and drop him on a spot. You will be whisked away to a POV street view of the spot.
You can now “walk” the streets by clicking in the direction you want to go. Have a look around by clicking, holding, and dragging your mouse left and right. Roll the center mouse wheel to zoom in and out.
It’s almost like being there without having to wear a parka.
Maybe a more picturesque spot? Let’s go to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
Type that into Google Maps. It’s bit more populated there, right?
Click the Peg Man over this map, and you will not only see the blue-colored streets, but you will also see blue “Photo Spheres.” Click on one of these, and you’ll have a 360-degree panorama where you can really get a look around.
Yeah, it’s a little more crowded than Ittoqqortoormiit, but as you can “tour” the entire city this way, maybe you can find a unique vantage point for a photo not currently done a million times.
When to be there
I mentioned the two essentials in planning for a great photo:
- Knowing where to go, and
- Knowing when to be there.
I’ve covered a few of the tools and techniques for cyber-scouting photo locations – the “where” part of that equation.
There are other tools that will help you know “when.”
Photographers know that great light and the specific spot are keys to making an image that goes above and beyond average. Some online tools and apps can help with that too.
Rather than get into all of those here, let me direct you to another DPS article by author Pete DeMarco, “6 of the Best Smartphone Apps for Travel and Landscape Photography.” In it he discusses:
- The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE)
- Sun Surveyor
- Tide Charts Near Me
About those GPS coordinates
You remember I said to note GPS coordinates? This is a great way to keep track of, map, and use GPS devices to get you to those spots once you are on location.
These articles were written a few years ago, just before my epic New England trip. What proved most useful was transferring my GPS data into my Garmin Navigator dashtop GPS device.
I used transferred the .kmz file, but also learned that it was easy enough to type the GPS coordinates into the device and save them as locations.
I took the Garmin in my suitcase, set it up in the rental car once in Boston, clicked the location we wanted to go to, and bingo…off we went.
The beauty of the Garmin is it worked completely off the satellite, no internet connection required.
I was surprised how often we didn’t have internet availability, even in what seemed only “hills” by a westerners’ perspective.
The lesson learned – don’t count on your phone, tablet, or other internet-required devices for navigation. A stand-alone GPS navigation device (Garmin, Magellan, Tom Tom, etc.), which requires only a satellite connection, is a much more reliable option.
Cyber-scouting photo locations before your trip is a fun way to “see” and know-before-you-go the spots you’d like to photograph.
Electronic GPS devices can be a great way to get to the spots you’ve planned on visiting. But should it all go south, the connections don’t connect, and the power fails, an old-fashioned paper map and a compass is a good “Plan B” to have in your pack.
Of course, don’t overlook talking to the locals, or even better, local photographers who know the great spots. Also, hiring a guide can be well worth it, especially if you are in a foreign place.
For now, though, do some cyber-scouting, and get excited about your upcoming photo trip.
When you get back with some awesome images, post a few in the comments section below and tell us about your adventure.